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How E-Waste Threatens National Security

We documented how the e-waste America ships overseas returns to threaten it's citizen's health. Now, we've learned how that e-waste also threatens America's national security.

IEEE Spectrum referenced the problem in September 2013, "The global trade in recycled electronics parts is enormous and growing rapidly, driven by a confluence of cost pressures, increasingly complex supply chains, and the huge growth in the amount of electronic waste sent for disposal around the world. Recycled parts, relabeled and sold as new, threaten not only military systems but also commercial transportation systems, medical devices and systems, and the computers and networks that run today’s financial markets and communications systems... Some companies have built a business model based on pulling old parts from cast-off products and reselling them as new. Relabeled or otherwise altered parts masquerading as new can fail prematurely in critical systems, such as those in airplanes and cars, with potentially catastrophic results."

National Defense Magazine gave a specific focus to the security issue in February 2015 . "...a flood of counterfeit electronic parts from China threatens the reliability of sophisticated defense technologies from thermal weapon sights to advanced missile systems and from aircraft to submarines. {a US goverment] committee found more than 1,800 cases of counterfeit parts in defense systems. But like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, what we can see is only a small part of the problem."

What is the e-waste connection? We've covered some of this issues in the past, but this report pulls together the issues contributing to dangerous counterfiting.

...counterfeiters re-process used electronic components pulled from e-waste — the source of their feedstock. As the [government] report found, “much of the material used to make counterfeit electronic parts is electronic waste, or e-waste, shipped from the United States and the rest of the world to China.”

The used parts are subjected to harsh re-processing practices that add to the performance risks...[In China's Guangdong Province], the epicenter of counterfeiting activities. There, workers pull apart the e-waste by hand, often in backyards and dump sites. The e-waste is often heated over open fires to loosen electronic components so they are easier to remove from the circuit boards to which they are soldered...

The parts are then dumped on sidewalks for sorting. The process is messy, so the components are washed in a river or left outside in the rain.

After drying in the open air, the parts are shipped to larger facilities that are set up for counterfeiting. The parts may be sanded or put through an acid wash to remove part numbers, then re-coated in a process known as “blacktopping” to hide identifying product information. Because chips are sensitive to moisture and static electricity incurred from improper handling, packaging and storage, the counterfeit process threatens already unreliable used components. In addition, the acid eventually eats away at a microchip’s internal parts.

Obviously, microchips handled in this way will be prone to failure — sooner rather than later. Yet even to a trained eye, the chips look factory fresh. These counterfeit parts are represented as “new” by the counterfeiters and sold to U.S. companies that are unaware of their origins and incorporate the counterfeit parts into their products.

The article is clear on the solution. "By allowing an unchecked flow of e-waste exports, the United States is contributing to the feedstock used to create counterfeit electronic parts that can find their way into the DoD supply chain and can also present a public health and safety risk. Congress must go on the offensive against counterfeiters by enacting a comprehensive policy on e-waste exports. " [Emphasis mine]

For more on e-waste, click the 'recycle' tag at the top of this post.